Winston Churchill in Cuba

by Randolph Churchill, Contributed by Larry Daley


General:

One of the most curious events in the Spanish-Cuban-American war was the presence of Winston Churchill (1895) much before the U.S. entry into the war.  Churchill was gathering information as a military observer.  There are even some who infer that the information on tactics and methods used by the Spanish was put to work in subsequent Boer War, and led to the eventual victory of the British forces in that South African War.

It is interesting to speculate that a much more complete military style copy of Churchill's reports may exist somewhere in the vast archives of the British Empire, or in the private papers of his son Randolph. In support of this, one can infer tantalizing hints by Randolph, when he refers to his father Winston Churchill's advice to him at the time of the Spanish Civil War so as not to appear to be a spy.   In addition, it is noted below Winston Churchill at the time of his visit to Cuba was on a leave of absence from his regiment.

However, one should bear in mind what a knowledgeable source points out (for further details see Davis 1906): "Churchill's visit to the front was typical of ambitious British (and German, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, and even American) military officers of the day. They got experience in seeing combat, and the resulting reports filed at home could help boost one's chances of promotion. In many cases it was also lucrative in that the observers would also write articles for popular magazines. The American and Spanish armies were loaded with observers. At times, however, the observers were not necessarily welcomed by their own units, who had to stand the boring times (with the lack of promotion) at home, while the officers of means could get a leave of absence and go gallivanting."

What we see below are accounts by a brilliant, but still very young, man who just turning twenty-one as yet does not fully understand the complexities of irregular war, nor the subtleties of Cuban politics and racial relations.  For instance Churchill accepts the Spanish propaganda point that Antonio Maceo was a Black separatist, a while it is now clear that Maceo, not only was not completely black (he was mulatto), but was an avowed integrationist.  The Spanish (e.g. Antonio Serra Ortiz, 1906) view of the war was of course quite different from the Cuban perspective (Jose Miro Argenter 1909). Whatever, South Africa, the Sudan, Gallapoli etc, will teach Churchill other lessons, and a great man will be forged.
 

Churchill's Experiences:

"...But the next morning they were able to go to Sancti Spiritus— 'a forsaken place, and in a most unhealthy state. Smallpox and yellow fever are rife' They beat General Valdez and his column by a short head and on the following day set out with them on a march to the village of Iguara, blockaded by the insurgents with the object of protecting a supply convoy.

On November 29 news came that a band of 4000 insurgents under Maximo Gomez was encamped a few miles to the east of Iguara and at 5 a.m. on November 30 (1895 L.D.) General Valdez set out from Arroyo Blanco, in pursuit of the insurgents.

There was a low mist as we moved off in the early morning, and all of a sudden the rear of the column was involved in firing. In those across open ground under a very heavy fire,' he wrote to his mother when he got back to his hotel in Havana on December 6.
 

'The General, a very brave man—in a white and gold uniform on a grey horse—drew a great deal of fire on to us and I heard enough bullets whistle and hum past to satisfy me for some time to come. He rode right up to within 500 yards of the enemy and there we waited till the fire of the Spanish infantry drove them from their position. We had great luck in not losing more than we did—but as a rule the rebels shot very high. We stayed by the General all the time and so were in the most dangerous place in the field. The General recommended us for the Red Cross—a Spanish Decoration given to Officers—and coming in the train yesterday, by chance I found Marshal Campos and his staff, who told me that it would be sent us in due course.'


Though he was not subsequently to be allowed to wear the Spanish decoration, the Red Cross was to be a heavy one to bear in the ensuing weeks. The popular and provincial press both in England and in New York made scathing comments when they heard that Churchill had been with the government forces. 'Sensible people' wrote the Newcastle Leader on December 7, 'will wonder what motive could possibly impel a British officer to mix himself up in a dispute with the merits of which he had absolutely nothing to do.

Mr. Churchill was supposed to have gone to the West Indies for a holiday, he having obtained leave of absence from his regimental duties at the beginning of October for that purpose. Spending a holiday infighting other people's battles is rather an extraordinary proceeding even for a Churchill.'

The Eastern  Morning News on the same day commented: 'difficulties are certain to arise and Lord Wolseley will probably order him to return at once  and report himself.'

As soon as he returned to Tampa Churchill denied that he had fought against the Cubans. '1 have not even fired a revolver. I am a member of General Valdes's staff by courtesy only, and am decorated with the Red Cross only by courtesy.' In New York he gave interviews to the press who received his views with a mixture of grudging respect and tolerant amusement. 'One conspicuous feature of this war' he told them, 'is the fact that so few men are killed. There can be no question as to the immense amount of ammunition expended on both sides, but the surprising truth remains that ridiculous little execution is done. It has always been said, you know, that it takes 200 bullets to kill a soldier, but as applied to the Cuban war 200,000 shots would be closer to the mark.'

Barely a month after Churchill had taken leave of Marshal Martinez Campos the unfortunate Captain General was dismissed. His friend the Duke of Tetuan resigned in sympathy and the Marshal's place was taken by General Weyler, who had acquired a reputation for ruthlessness in ending the insurrection in 1878: the mere threat of his arrival had been sufficient to bring to an end rioting among the students of Barcelona.

Churchill formed clear and decided views about what he had seen in Cuba. But these did not help him to come down on one side or the other. He had a natural sympathy for people trying to shake off an oppressor, a natural distaste for the high-handed and often stupid actions of the colonial administrators. He saw, moreover, that "the demand for independence is national and unanimous."  In his very first despatch he had written: 'The insurgents gain adherence continually. There is no doubt that they possess the sympathy of the entire population.'

On the other hand he was frankly contemptuous of the ill-organized, ineffective, destructive and often cruel manner in which the rebels conducted their campaign. 'They neither fight bravely nor do they use their weapons effectively.'

He (Churchill) later wrote in the Saturday Review on 7 March 1896. 'They cannot win a single battle or hold a single town. Their army, consisting to a large extent of coloured men, is an undisciplined rabble.'  What he saw of the rebel forces and of the havoc wreaked by them on the economy and administration of the country did not inspire in Churchill any confidence that the insurgents would provide a better alternative for Cuba than the Spanish colonial power. 'The rebel victory offers little good either to the world in general or to Cuba in particular,' he wrote on 15 February 1896 in the Saturday Review. 'Though the Spanish administration is bad a Cuban Government would be worse, equally corrupt, more capricious, and far less stable. Under such a Government revolutions would be periodic, property insecure, equity unknown.'

Sending his friend Bourke Cockran a copy of this article Churchill wrote:
 

'WSC to W.Bourke Cockran {Cockran Papers)
29 February [1896]                        Bachelors' Club W.

I hope the United States will not force Spain to give up Cuba— unless you are prepared to accept responsibility for the results of such action. If the States care to take Cuba—though this would be very hard on Spain—it would be the best and most expedient course for both the island and the world in general. But I hold it a monstrous thing if you are going to merely procure the establishment of another South American Republic—which however degraded and irresponsible is to be backed in its action by the American people—without their maintaining any sort of control over its behaviour.

I do hope that you will not be in agreement with those wild, and I must say, most irresponsible people who talk of Spain as "beyond the pale" etc etc. Do write and tell me what you do think. . .  '


No doubt Churchill felt the delicacy of the situation of overly criticizing the Spaniards who were his hosts and who necessarily were responsible for his food, his shelter and his safety.  Moreover he had been under fire with the Spaniards on his twenty-first birthday. Roughing it and encountering some danger with people who are your hosts inevitably breeds a comradeship which makes completely objective reporting impossible.

Just over forty years later he sought to restrain his son (the author of this book L.D) from going to the Spanish civil war to report it for the Daily Mail. He pointed out how difficult it would be to write objectively about a war (quite apart from the difficulties of censorship) when you were on one side of the lines. He further told his son that he must on no account later go to the other side; in that case he would be suspected by both sides of being a spy.

This latter advice was heeded. In retrospect—though it was frustrating at the time-it was a good thing that General Franco's public relations officers only allowed the author once to come under fire about two miles outside Madrid.

A year later, writing to his mother from India on 7 January 1897, Churchill expresses his second thoughts about the articles he had written on his return from Cuba:
 

'I reproach myself somewhat for having written a little uncandidly and for having perhaps done injustice to the insurgents. I rather tried to make out, and in some measure succeeded in making out, a case for Spain. It was politic and did not expose me to the charge of being ungrateful to my hosts, but I am not quite clear whether it was right.

This above all—to thine [own] self be true And it must follow as the night the day Thou canst not then be false to any man.

I am aware that what I wrote did not shake thrones or upheave empires—but the importance of principles do not depend on the importance of what involves them.'


It was not, however. Just courtesy to his hosts that coloured Churchill's views when he returned to England after his expedition to Cuba. He foresaw that in the event of a rebel victory the predominant share in government that was likely to be demanded by the negro element among the insurgents, led by Antonio Maceo, would create renewed and even more bitter conflict of a racial kind and thus reduce 'the richest island in the world, the pearl of the Antilles,' to ruin. This was the reason that led Churchill to view the rebel cause with less enthusiasm than was popular in large sections of the English Press, and among such of his contemporaries as Hubert Howard, who was reporting for The Times, but on the rebel side (and who incidentally was one of the war correspondents later to be killed at Omdurman).

This, too, was the reasoning that led him to look askance at the American Government's recognition of the rebel forces in March 1896. But when America actually intervened and went to war with Spain in 1898 there was no doubt where his sympathy lay. Consistent with the views he had expressed more than two years earlier he now saw the opportunity for firm and stable government in an island which was rich in resources but which had been impoverished and debilitated by misgovernment and insurrection. 'America can give the Cubans peace' he told the Morning Post in an interview on 15 July 1898, 'and perhaps prosperity will then return. American annexation is what we must all urge, but possibly we shall not have to urge very long.' The myth has grown up that Churchill was in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, and that he had taken the side of the Spaniards against the Americans. Churchill took every possible step to dispel the myth but it kept recurring, notably at the outbreak of war in 1939 when an American Congressman implied that Churchill had actually been an enemy of the United States in the Spanish-American war.”



Bibliography:

Davis, Richard Harding. Real Soldiers Of Fortune. New York: PF Collier & Son, 1906
New York. (used in introduction)

Miro Argenter, Jose,  "Chronicas de la Guerra" Libreria e Imprenta La Moderna Poesia 1909 (re-issued Editorial Letras Cubanas. Havana 1981)  (used in introduction)

Randolph S. Churchill 1966, Winston S. Churchill. Vol. I  Youth 1874-1900. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1966. 264-270.

Serra Ortiz, Antonio 1906.  Recuerdos de las Guerras de Cuba 1868-1898. Santa Cruz de Tenerife  (copy courtesy of Professor Manuel de Paz, University of La Laguna, Tenerife, Canary Islands Spain, 1906) (used in introduction)


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